Scrunched in the packed coach cabin, J.P. Maxwell eyed the lone empty seat in first class. An elite flier on Continental Airlines, he was upset. Maxwell was convinced he should have been automatically upgraded for the recent four-hour trip.

During the flight, the Internet entrepreneur hacked out a 526-word missive that he later posted on a popular online chat room, flyertalk.com. "I consistently pay several hundred more to fly [Continental] and this is what I get?" Maxwell vented on the site.

Lurking in the chat room was Scott O'Leary, a customer service guru at Continental who spends several hours each day prowling such Web sites for customer complaints. O'Leary quickly discovered that Maxwell had never been told that he had been upgraded and had been left to languish in coach. With the passion of someone who had discovered a major flaw in the airline's operations, O'Leary alerted company executives to prevent similar foul-ups, ensured that Maxwell got a free upgrade and posted an explanation for the mistake in the chat room.

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